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AMD ponders bigger x86 chip clan

Advanced Micro Devices explores offering more chips based on the x86 processor architecture in an effort to win a wider range of customers.

NEW YORK--Advanced Micro Devices plans to expand its family of processors based on the x86 architecture to fit a broader range of computing devices.

The chipmaker will launch its Athlon64, a new high-performance processor for desktop and notebook PCs, next week. But it's already exploring offering even more chips based on the x86 processor architecture in an effort to win a wider range of customers, Hector Ruiz, AMD's CEO, said in an interview with CNET

AMD aims to employ what one might call an x86 Everywhere strategy, under which it will expand the use of the x86 architecture, the basic design that underlies all of its PC chips and those from competitors Intel and VIA Technologies, Ruiz said.

AMD could produce new, presumably lower-cost x86 processors for devices such as handhelds or possibly even very low-price PCs for emerging markets, he said.

The new strategy, which Ruiz will unveil during his Wednesday afternoon TechXNY keynote here, would allow AMD to take advantage of the mountain of software and hardware available to support x86 chips. It would be easy to build a basic handheld device that ran the latest version of Windows, for example. Ruiz will demonstrate such a device during the keynote.

The combination of readily available hardware and software would simplify the development process for new devices. It would also ease the job of corporate information technology staffs by allowing them to run the same basic software on devices ranging from handhelds all the way to eight-processor servers, Ruiz said.

The strategy, which would create a bookend of sorts for AMD's processor line, also gives an indication of some of the chipmaker's plans for the technology it gained from National Semiconductor.

When AMD purchased a National Semiconductor unit, it gained access to the Geode processor, a so-called system-on-a-chip processor, originally derived from National Semi's Cyrix division. AMD purchased National Semiconductor's Information Appliance division last month.

National Semi designed the Geode as a low-cost processor for corporate PCs, thin clients, set-top boxes and the failed Internet appliance craze. A system-on-a-chip processor melds a number of building blocks needed for an electronic device, including a central processor, graphics, memory controllers and input-output for disk drives or other storage methods. By integrating a number of devices, the chip also aims to cut down on the cost of building a device.

AMD is planning to offer a new tier of processors, Ruiz said, that will likely be cheaper than its Geode processor.

Because of the vast number of devices available now and under development, and their numerous requirements, the computer industry needs a broader range of more specialized processors that can address different cost and performance requirements, Ruiz said.

"We're going to provide x86 solutions for a very broad mixture of those things," he said.

AMD's strategy, which expands the x86 architecture, contrasts with that of rival Intel, which has traditionally created new chips for new market segments. It created the XScale for handhelds and the Itanium for large servers, for example. These Intel processor lines use different architectures, therefore requiring software designed specially to work with them.

Still, the companies seem to agree that lower-cost PC processors may be needed to help lower the prices of desktop PCs, helping the companies tap emerging markets.

Paul Otellini, Intel's president, said on Tuesday that Intel is mulling the idea of creating a new line of chips and chipsets for PCs sold in emerging markets like Eastern Europe.

In a separate announcement on Tuesday, AMD said that H&R block will purchase at least 15,000 Hewlett-Packard d325 desktops, which contain the AMD Athlon XP processor. It is the largest corporate customer win for the chipmaker to date.